Developing Voice in New Orleans: The City with the Highest Incarceration Rate in the U.S.

“The hierarchical, non-participatory public education system that offers no space for reciprocal learning or embrace between teacher and student leaves many educators and administrators trapped in a circus between unvarying enforced curricula content and centralized testing mandated by the state.”
In July 2009, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill aimed to reduce Louisiana’s skyrocketing dropout rate by creating a new “career track” diploma. In addition to lowering educational standards, the bill fails to address the root of the social and political problem involved with juvenile incarceration and dropout rates: parent incarceration.
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, with one out of 55 residents behind bars. And, with a pre-Katrina incarceration rate of 1480 prisoners per 100,000 residents, New Orleans had the highest incarceration rate of any large city in the United States (1).
The effect of this reality on schoolchildren is bleak. The Sentencing Project finds that “children of incarcerated parents are more likely to drop out of school, engage in delinquency and subsequently be incarcerated themselves” (2). The impact of an incarcerated parent has been linked to increased risks for poor academic performance (3), behavioral problems (4) and juvenile delinquency (5) for students who already faced with the myriad of challenges already posed by an inept American public school system. These factors are further aggregated by the myriad of challenges already posed by an inept American public school system.
Nevertheless, as an investigator with Innocence Project New Orleans, I have found that it is possible to build upon existing classroom work and existing relationships with teachers and students to create a series of platforms for the many youth voices impacted by incarceration. Despite the non-participatory nature of most public schools, youth media educators must continue to develop and enhance engaging projects in order to ensure that youth—particularly those impacted by incarceration—have opportunities to develop their voices in safe and rigorous settings.
Students at the Center in the Classroom
Since 1996 Students at the Center (SAC) has worked with student populations in more than 12 secondary schools. While drawing from its own growth and building collectively with other facilitators, SAC aims to implement a participatory action research method and framework for exploring and providing an individual and collective process for reflection and action for students impacted by incarceration.
SAC works through English classes—elective writing and other classes—to help students develop collective viewpoints on topics and design strategies for sharing their writings. These strategies and dissemination methods include using multimedia through a process of self reflection and collaboration to develop persuasive essays and personal statements.
One technique that I suggest to students, from my experience at SAC, is a story circle, which is a small group forum in which participants sit in a circle and reflect on a theme or concept grounded in one’s personal experience that is shared with the group. In my experience, the personal stories often uncover themes such as rape, a lack of school supports for teen parents, gangs, heroes, the economy, mentors, abortion, fatherlessness, the militarization of public schools, incarceration, and standardized testing to name a few.
As the students produce their own knowledge, they also develop a greater academic appreciation for creative writing and critical thinking. My role was to motivate and encourage students to recognize that they already have the ability to effect change in their families, schools, and communities.
The Challenge of Schools
Engaging participatory youth media instruction such as that offered by SAC is unfortunately one of the few opportunities set against thecurrent public school environment. Evaluation protocols, professionally trained teaching staff, education policymakers, administrative infrastructure, and societal expectations have become woefully inept in identifying and or incorporating a method of relating to young people on an intimate academic basis. For example, a 2006 national survey of high school dropouts revealed that nearly half (47%) of all high school students who dropped did so because, in their view, the classes were not interesting (6).
Youth voice in youth media has the capacity to provide mediums through which students can feel individually relevant in their school and communities. Our programs are a defacto means of counseling while providing a unique form of education and learning—whether a writing piece, video, or live performance—to instill a sense of pride in one’s work.
Suggestions to the Field
Include and work with the classroom teacher. In one of the classrooms I worked in, the teacher—who I will call Ms. D—was an important part of the youth media process and experience. For example, Ms. D offered additional academic critiques and resources that aided in the students to develop their writings after identifying their target audience. In addition, Ms D. expressed and wrote a piece about her own personal experiences, which she shared with the students. Her willingness to share her experience was received by the students as submission to the group in both a literal and figurative sense.
In fact, her piece compelled another female student to share a piece describing an experience that was very similar to Ms. D’s. This experience humanized the teacher for the students in ways that may not have existed in the traditional classroom setting. More importantly, it provided for the mutual exchange of critical knowledge collective self-inquiry and group reflection. Youth media presented an important opportunity for Ms. D and her students, transforming the classroom.
Build programmatic connections across schools and school types. Traditional education methods, as illustrated in the Banking Concept of Education (7), forcefully assigns students to the role of passive recipient of what is deemed the correct information. This conscious and deliberate arrangement concretizes students’ realities in ways that mirror their underprivileged communities. Youth media is a strategy to adapt and evolve traditional education methods to validate students’ realities, the concept of privilege, and systemic oppression that propagates a cycle of incarceration, poverty and limited access and opportunities for education and collective knowledge production.
Broker strategic partnerships that benefit educators and students. SAC has supported United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO, AFT Local 427) in school improvement and professional partnerships with the Recovery School District and New Orleans Public Schools (8), in order toemphasize student participation and inclusion on the creation of supplemental curriculum materials. In addition, SAC collaborated with UTNO to produce ongoing self-improvement workshops at eight pilot RSD schools participating in AFT-UTNO’s Effective School Improvement initiative.
SAC’s indicators of success include:
• copies of school improvement plans that include role of students as partners with teachers and community and parents in improving their schools;
• the production and publication of the book Men We Love, Men We Hate (excerpt below), copies of teacher lesson plans that incorporate youth writing and youth media in curriculum;
Our Voice, a collaborative quarterly newspaper distributed to every public school in New Orleans (approximately 60) that features articles written by both students and SAC staff members; and,
• interviews and written narratives by students and teachers about their use of youth media and youth writing in the classroom.
Create an environment of reciprocal exchange. In addition to producing youth media work, educators ought to have a primary objective to develop a long term pipeline of students who will serve in the communities in which they were born and raised. As part of their SAC internship, SAC students who are juniors and seniors serve as classroom assistants and leadership and literacy mentors to “feeder” elementary and middle school students and neighboring k-8 schools. For example, SAC has graduate-turned staff that go back as far as 1996. These graduates/staff members participate in neighborhood planning meetings and advocate for education reform.
Next Steps
Youth media in education can form the basis of viable alternatives to traditional, and seemingly unsuccessful, forms of instruction. It has the capacity to provide s a medium by which students can feel individually relevant in their school and communities. On the other and, if alternatives to traditional forms of education are not considered, as many legislators and policymakers have proposed and initiated, we as a society can expect youth incarceration and the dropout rate to continue to increase.
By using youth media and other tools that allow opportunities for self-development, young people can broaden their local perspective to embrace larger national and even global realities. Youth media not only successfully empowers students to reflect on their personal and collective experiences but specifically provides a platform for students to act and create change in the issues that impact them. Schools must not miss the opportunity to engage with youth media instruction, and educators in youth media must reach out to schools. The outcome is sure to make an impact on the alarming statistics of incarceration, drop out and illiteracy.
A graduate of the New Orleans Public School system, Brandon Early has been a member of SAC staff since 2007. Brandon is a case investigator with Innocence Project New Orleans, which represents innocent prisoners serving life sentences in Louisiana and Mississippi and assists them with their transition into the free world upon their release. Since its inception in 2000, Innocence Project New Orleans has grown to be the second largest free-standing (not a law school clinic) innocence project in the country, having been instrumental in the exoneration of 15 men. Brandon attended Morehouse College and graduated from Loyola University New Orleans in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in sociology.
The following excerpt from Men We, Love Men We Hate (9) illustrates how guided self-reflection can lead to students’ awareness about larger themes and social issues:
“HE’S MY DADDY” by Erika Snowden, Frederick Douglass High School, New Orleans, LA
“It was March, I believe. I was browsing on the computer when I realized that you can find out information on inmates in the Orleans Parish Prison. When I entered my daddy’s name, his rap sheet came up. So I started looking at all of the things had a done since back in 1989. It really hurt me to know that the man I called Daddy has been doing some of the stupidest shit a person can do.
Starting in 1989 he went to jail for burglary. Alright, I knew he was a thief but in 1990 he went to jail for grand theft auto. Alright, that’s not new either. But what shocked me and had my attention was August 28, 1991. He went to jail for molesting a juvenile under the age of 12, and it really hurt me, because I didn’t know the man I called my daddy was a child molester.
So I called [a friend] and asked her to see it. She looked at his rap sheet and I was embarrassed of myself that this man’s wrongdoings have people downgrading me and his family. I don’t know why he’s doing these things. And three days before finding this out, I wrote him a letter about how much I miss him and believe in him. And here he made me less interested in being apart of his life, when he found this out.
So I went home. I was scared to ask my mom, because I didn’t want to think it was me or my sister or my cousin. So I finally built up the courage to ask, and she said, “I didn’t know that myself. That’s the first time to my ears.” So I’m thinking all of these years, his family not wanting to have anything to do with him has affected me from seeing them or really getting to know them. But you know what, it doesn’t matter how much I don’t agree with the things he does or me having nothing to do with him anymore. Even if I say I hate him, it’s not gonna change the fact that he’s my daddy.”

(1) Schirmer, S., Nellis, A., & Mauer, M. The Sentencing Project. (2009). The Sentencing Project is a national organization working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing law and practice, and alternatives to incarceration.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Gabel, S. & Shindeldecker, R., 1993.
(4) Gabel, S, 1992.
(5) Virginia Commission on Youth, 1997.
(6) Bridgeland, J.M., Dilulio, Jr., J.J, & Morison, K.B. , 2006.
(7) Freire argued that modern education fills students with information that they submissively accept. He points out that the lack of reciprocal learning or sharing between teachers and students. In his work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he asserts that oppressive qualities are found in every classroom and mirrored by society as a whole.
(8) A historical and predominately black member organization founded in 1937, UTNO is the single largest group working across all three types of public schools in New Orleans. It’s more than 1,300 members represent of 50% of teachers in the city.
(9) Students at the Center writings from Frederick Douglass, John McDonogh 35, and Eleanor McMain high schools in New Orleans. An anthology on the topic of men and relationships with men.
American Civil Liberties Union. (2006). Orleans Parish Prison: A Big Jail with Big Problems.
Bridgeland, J.M., Dilulio, Jr., J.J, & Morison, K.B. (March 2006). The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts. Civic Enterprises, LLC with Peter D. Hart Research.
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York, Continuum Books, 1993.
Gabel, S. & Shindeldecker, R. “Characteristics of children whose parents have been incarcerated.” Hospital and Community Psychiatry, 44 1993: 656-660.
Gabel, S. “Behavioral problems of sons of incarcerated or otherwise absent fathers: The issue of separation.” Family Process, 31 1992: 303-314.
The Pew Study, (2008). One in 100: Behind Bars in America.
Schirmer, S., Nellis, A., & Mauer, M. The Sentencing Project. (2009). Incarcerated Parents and Their Children: Trends 1991-2007.
Students at the Center. Men We Love Men We Hate. New Orleans: Students at the Center, 2009.
Virginia Commission on Youth. (1997). “Study of the needs of children whose parents are Incarcerated.”

Interview: Jim Randels and Kalamu ya Salaam

Jim Randels is the executive vice president of United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527) and is a parent, teacher, and graduate of New Orleans Public Schools. He taught at Frederick Douglass High before and after the state takeover and currently teaches at McMain and McDonogh 35 High Schools. He has authored over $5 million worth of grants to assist public education in New Orleans.
New Orleans writer, filmmaker and educator, Kalamu ya Salaam is co-director (with Jim Randels) of Students at the Center, a writing program in the New Orleans public schools. He is also moderator of Breath of Life, a Black music website. Kalamu can be reached at

YMR: What year was Students at the Center (SAC) founded and what was the impetus for starting the organization?
Jim Randels: SAC was founded in 1996 when students in an 11th grade English class I was teaching at McDonogh 35 decided to develop a school-based writing program to address the problem of high school English teachers working with so many students a day that students seldom received in-depth feedback on their writing. Erica DeCuir and Kenyatta Johnson, two students from that class at McDonogh 35, worked with me to design a program that would use grant money to create smaller class sizes, allowing students in SAC class to train and work as mentors in writing to younger students at the school, provide small group discussions about the younger students’ writing, and participate in school and community writing projects.
Kalamu Ya Salaam: We use story circles as a starting point. After the oral exchange of stories, students are encouraged to write from their own experiences. When we use standard curriculum texts and literature, we reinforce the validity of student lives and experiences. For example, when identifying the point of a piece of literature, we ask the students to find a similarity in their own life experiences.
YMR: What is your mission?
Randels: SAC’s mission is to improve the quality of education in public high schools in New Orleans by seeing students and their life experiences as resources to improve their schools and communities rather than as problems to be solved. Students, recent graduates who serve as staff, and classroom teachers who work with SAC comprise the leadership.
YMR: Can you share with YMR readers what the context is like in New Orleans that supports the need for youth media organizations like SAC?
Randels: SAC is really more an educational resource and a writing community. We do youth media as part of that broader context of improving schools and working as a community of writers. The current context of continuously changing school and school system leadership, continuous experimentation with public education, and revolving doors of teachers and school administrators make it especially important to have educational work grounded in students, graduates, and teachers. We need commitment to do long-term work in public education that places students, their lives, and the communities with which they identify as the main subject matter and resource for youth development and public education.
Salaam: Our emphasis is on identifying, analyzing and expressing the truths and meanings of student lives as well as understanding the truths and meanings of others, particularly as presented in standard literature and curriculum.
YMR: What challenges have you experienced in the past 1-3 years?
Randels: Probably the biggest challenge—and certainly the biggest heartbreak—is to see the state of Louisiana take over Douglass High School and push out community-based, student/family-led initiatives to improve the school. The state-run school district changed principals twice in the two years we were back at Douglass after Katrina. The second principal, with backing from the state-run district, refused to offer Advanced Placement courses to our students at Douglass and refused to implement the peer-led writing programs we had designed with school staff and community leadership as part of school improvement strategies.
In the second year, no new 9th grade students were admitted to the school. And, plans for the third year (2008-09) were to turn the school into a police, fire, and emergency medical concentration high school. Those plans have since been abandoned and the state system, which was supposed to improve the school, is now turning it over to a national charter school group, KIPP. Unfortunately, the charter school will reduce educational opportunities for the sort of students we were working with at Douglass before Katrina because it will not be neighborhood-based but city-wide.
Salaam: SAC views these changes as part of a concerted effort at privatizing the public school system. There is no longer a central public school system. There are multiple systems with an absence of coordination across the different systems. Our second challenge is the year-to-year fluctuations in funding.
YMR: And the successes?
Salaam: Our major success is survival as a program and the continued development of our program. Our staff consists of former high school SAC students who have decided to continue working with us. Another success is book publication. We have published two major projects in 2009: Men We Love, Men We Hate and Ways Of Laughing. Both books are available to read online, or as free downloads from our website. Both books are also available for purchase. Our website is A third major success area is the development and passing on of SAC pedagogy through professional development workshops.
Randels: In addition, our biggest successes have included developing a cohort of graduates from Douglass, McMain, and McDonogh 35 High Schools who work as staff with SAC; serving as writing mentors and resource teachers in nine public schools in New Orleans; and, establishing a regular writing workshop that brings together teachers and students through our partnership with United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527) and the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop.
YMR: What is your hope/vision for the organization in the future?
Randels: My hope is to nurture the projects that our staff and students are developing and widely distribute our resources/teaching materials in schools.
Salaam: To develop critical thinking among students.
YMR: Are you part of a youth media network in New Orleans?
Randels: The networks we are part of have more to do with education improvement with youth media as a component of that. Our major partners are with schools—New Orleans Public Schools and United Teachers of New Orleans (AFT Local 527).
Salaam: We are not part of any youth media networks and do not meet with youth media educators very often. We would welcome the opportunity to meet and share.
YMR: Do you partner with other youth media organizations in New Orleans or organizations outside of the city?
Salaam: It has been difficult to establish long-term partnerships in the city.
Randels: Outside of the city, we partner with a network of teachers and students, primarily from Oakland, CA and Lawrence, MA, who are part of the Bread Loaf Urban Teacher Network and the Andover Bread Loaf Writing Workshop. We also partner with writing and youth programs affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.
YMR: What is your personal vision/hope for young people? And what is one challenge you’d like to overcome?
Randels: Our main vision/hope for young people is for them to a) have the ability to engage critically in the communities and systems in which they find themselves, and b) understand the value of social learning and collective work and responsibility. The challenge is to move the perception in education and other spheres from an emphasis on individual achievement to an emphasis on community development.
YMR: What can youth media educators—your peers—do to help see that vision/hope to fruition?
Randels: Educators can develop situations in the local context where they live to support youth as resources that can improve their communities, engaging in critical, collective dialogue.
YMR: Is there any stand-alone piece of advice that you would like to share with educators in the national youth media field?
Salaam: Yes, be honest. In the words of Amilcar Cabral, a leader of the African Liberation movement in the seventies, “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories!” Youth need the examples of adults and elders who honestly share with youth the experiences and lessons the adults and elders have learned. Rather than simply and moralistically teaching what is right, we should share the realities of what was and what is, and that in turn will be a big help to youth as they prepare to deal with what will be.
Randels: Make sure that the experiences and insights of the young people with whom you work connect to a larger political/historical context. Have critical discourses between young people and adult allies to keep the community engaged.